The Purpose of the Writer Is To Keep Civilization from Destroying Itself

Bernard Malamud? Albert Camus? Harris Wofford? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Having a grand mission to achieve with your life helps to generate a powerful motivational force. Apparently, one scribe asserted that:

The purpose of the writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself.

This remark has been credited to the famous existential philosopher Albert Camus and to the prominent novelist and short story writer Bernard Malamud. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In December 1957 Albert Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and while delivering the Banquet speech he made a point that partially matched the quotation under examination. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Each generation doubtless feels called upon to reform the world. Mine knows that it will not reform it, but its task is perhaps even greater. It consists in preventing the world from destroying itself.

The above remark was not specifically about writers; instead, Camus referred to his entire generation. More information about his statement is available here. Camus delivered his speech in French.

In September 1958 Bernard Malamud was interviewed by the journalist Joseph Wershba of “The New York Post”, and he delivered a line that exactly matched the statement under investigation: 2

“The purpose of the writer,” says Malamud, “is to keep civilization from destroying itself. But without preachment. Artists, cannot be ministers. As soon as they attempt it, they destroy their artistry.”

Malamud may have heard the comment from Camus before he constructed a similar exhortation particularized to writers.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The fear that humanity will destroy itself has a long history, and entreaties to prevent such annihilation have often been sounded. In the early twentieth century the League of Nations organization, a precursor to the United Nations, was a repository for hope. A Wilmington, North Carolina newspaper suggested that a peace conference would help: 3

What now can the world say against the peace conference plan to keep the human race from destroying itself in war? Even though the league may not be perfect, the high purpose is in it, and it can be perfected in time to meet the world’s needs as they arise.

In 1946 political activist Harris Wofford published a book advocating the creation of a federal world government to save humankind. Wofford was only 19-years-old. He later became an influential U.S. politician and college president. The following synopsis was from a book reviewer : 4

Economically, socially, and geographically the world is a closely knit unit which lacks the necessary political unity. A real federal world government would provide this needed political unity to prevent civilization from destroying itself in another world’s war.

In December 1957 Albert Camus asserted in his Nobel Banquet speech that his generation’s task was “preventing the world from destroying itself” as noted previously in this article.

In January 1958 “The Washington Post” reported the words of an anonymous freshman at Barnard College in New York who endorsed the suggestion made by Camus: 5

“A feeling of helplessness enfolds our generation. What have we done to inherit such a world? It seems we are here to try to keep the world from destroying itself.

In September 1958 Bernard Malamud spoke about the lofty purpose of the writer as mentioned previously in this article:

“The purpose of the writer,” says Malamud, “is to keep civilization from destroying itself.

In Malamud’s 1961 novel, “A New Life”, the main character, Seymour Levin, expressed unhappiness that he was not performing the task which Malamud had identified as essential: 6

‘The way the world is now,’ Levin said, ‘I sometimes feel I’m engaged in a great irrelevancy, teaching people how to write who don’t know what to write. I can give them subjects but not subject matter. I worry I’m not teaching how to keep civilization from destroying itself.

In August 1990 Professor of English Lawrence M. Lasher wrote an introduction to a collection of interviews published under the title “Conversations with Bernard Malamud”. Lasher believed that Malamud was echoing the words of Camus: 7

. . . the two sides of Bernard Malamud which emerge most clearly from the interviews are the adventurous, experimental artist who took pride in himself as a “daring writer,” and the moralist and teacher who frequently quoted Camus’: “The purpose of the writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself.”

In conclusion, Bernard Malamud did employ the quotation about the purpose of writers during an interview in 1958; however, Albert Camus spoke a generalized version of the quotation applied to his generation in 1957. Furthermore, Malamud may have heard the remark from Camus beforehand. Pronouncements about groups attempting to prevent the destruction of humanity or civilization have a long history.

Image Notes: Picture of roman ruins from kirkandmimi at Pixabay. Image has been retouched, resized, and cropped.

(Great thanks to Heather Wheat, Susie M, Michael Daviot, and Jon Winokur whose discussion thread on twitter catalyzed an inquiry which led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. Website: The Nobel Prize, Article title: Albert Camus – Banquet speech, Speech author: Albert Camus, Date of speech: December 10, 1957, Speech location: City Hall in Stockholm, Language: English translation, Website description: Information from The Nobel Foundation in Stockholm, Sweden. (Accessed nobelprize.org on November 6, 2019) link
  2. 1991, Conversations with Bernard Malamud, Edited by Lawrence M. Lasher, Series: Literary Conversations, Not Horror but Sadness by Joseph Wershba (Article dated September, 14 1958; reprinted from “The New York Post”) Start Page 3, Quote Page 7, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, Mississippi. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1919 February 16, The Wilmington Morning Star, The League of Nations, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Wilmington, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1946 June 1, The Chicago Defender, Off The Book Shelf: Proponent of World Federation by Geo. McCray, Quote Page 15, Column 5, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  5. 1958 January 12, The Washington Post, ‘Subtle, Ghastly Causes’ Beset Youth, Quote Page C11, Column 6, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)
  6. 1968 (First Published 1961), A New Life by Bernard Malamud Quote Page 103, Penguin Books, New York. (Verified with scans)
  7. 1991, Conversations with Bernard Malamud, Edited by Lawrence M. Lasher, Series: Literary Conversations, Introduction by Lawrence M. Lasher, (Introduction dated August 1990), Start Page ix, Quote Page xix, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, Mississippi. (Verified on paper)